David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Tag: Colin Powers

The Glorious World Cup on Huffington Post: Live from South Africa: How the English Hate Themselves

Colin Powers, our man in South Africa, tells it like it is about the English.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-henry-sterry/live-from-south-africa-ho_b_620453.html

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Colin Powers: Our Man in South Africa

The Cup has debuted with some tentative, tetsing first steps for the most part. A win in game one is nice for a nation’s prospects; a loss can be completely damning, however. And so, the war of attrition format of the tourney encourages conservatism in the early stages, keeping your head above water, hoping for a stumble from one’s group mates, and then capitalizing when the math presents an opportunity. Unfortunately, this system has produced its fair share of duds across South Africa (with nerves, the ball, vuvuzellas, etc also serving as excuses), but expect round two to witness more aggressive tactics as sides have a clearer picture of what they need for advancement. Playing not to lose won’t cut it this time.

Livest scene I’ve seen so far of the tournament was for Australia v. Germany. White, southern hemisphere, former British colonial objects kinsmen that Oz and South Africa are, there was a massive and typically boisterous Aussie turnout in Durban. With rugby and cricket rivalries so prevalent in each countries sporting culture, there has long been an extensive exchange of ex-pats and traveling fans orienting a holiday trip around a variety of sporting contexts. The WC proved no different, and Oz did not disappoint as they hoped to build on the recent momentum of the Socceroos in challenging Aussie Rules Football, Rugby, and the Thorpedo for the mantel at Outback Steakhouse. The vuvuzellas have added decibels to every atmosphere, including the fan zones, but there was a different buzz in the early goings because of the partisan nature of the scene.

Unfortunately for Paul Hogan’s people, they were blitzkrieged from the jump by the typically efficient and calibrated German attack (although I should try to come up with better adjectives than the truisms listed above which have described German people since Bismarck’s Prussia). Ze Germans moved the ball with precision, quick and efficient in exploiting the gaping spaces left in the midfield by the deer-in-the-headlights Austrlians. Schweinsteiger’s maturity in the central midfield role particularly stook out to me as it was his direction, timing, and rhythm that keyed their cohesion going forward. In 2006, the Bayern Munich man seemed to be another talented player trapped within the mindset of style before substance, cheeky touches before subtlety and focus. He was a far different player last night, an essential development for the Ballack-less German team.

Within a few minutes, it was clear the Aussies lacked the athleticism and pace to successfully play the scrappy underdog role (a la the USA against superior talent), and the raucous crowd was soon silenced by a thunderous strike from Lukas Podolski. The Polish turncoat (like front-man partner Miroslav Klose) continues to shine for his ‘nation’, though he has yet to really establish himself at the club level. Sports are all about situation and opportunity. The World Cup is no different. When outgunned in the skill department, you need to win the physically, fitness, and work-rate contests. No such luck.

The Aussies had very limited options going forward, and though the dynamic Tim Cahill has always been a favorite of mine, the imposing German defense seemed to bother him throughout. When he was eventually sent off on a dubious decision by the referee, the Australians’ fate was sealed.

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Solid result for America the other night. I watched the match over at the incredible Durban Fan Zone on South Beach. The only properly warm weather city in the ongoing South African winter, this Indian Ocean terminal has that laid back vibe of all temperate coastal spots. The racial composition is probably the most diverse I’ve seen in South Africa with a very large Indian population mixing along side the more central players in South Africa’s ethnography. Fan zone was jumping, and the early poke by freshly minted Captain Steven Gerrard provided the exact inauspicious beginning I was hoping to avoid.

That said, there is something about the English football mindset that simply does not project the same authority and dominance as the other fixtures amongst football’s top dogs. Arrogance and entitlement is expressed in calling their football governing body the Football Assocation (as opposed to every other country which calls their’s in one wording or another the German Football Assocation, the Brasilian Football Association, etc) are some of the guiding forces in their founding mythology. Originators of the sport, they still feel a superiority and ownership of football despite the nature of the game allowing for an indigenous and cultural redefinition of it in every place it gets established. With the Premiership the top club league in the world top to bottom (although that may change with financial problems at Liverpool and Manchester Utd as well as increasing income tax rate in the UK possibly driving big name players to Espana, Italy, etc), they can puff out their chest a little further.

However, competing with the smug self-absorption that their sensationalist media so propagates is also an underlying and inescapable feeling of fatalism. As Dempsey’s relatively innocuous try from the top of the box trickled past yet another English goalkeeper unprepared for the world stage, there was a pre-2004 Red Soxian grown of inevitability. The deepest stream of consciousness of every English supporter runs something like this: ‘Of course they would fuck up. They always do. Why the fuck did this have to happen against those loud, brutish Americans? Those new money charlatans? Bloody hell. Not on Maggie Thatcher’s watch. Tea, crumpets, rain. Tea, crumpets, rain’

The moment something ominous appears on the horizon, the narrative in their media, fandom, and perhaps within their team (though I think Capello is well-suited to reverse this confidence issue), becomes not a considersation of how to surmount the trouble, but how and in what painful manner they will be sunk this time around. Can there be any doubt of the result if England is to find themselves in another penalty shoot-out come the elimination stages?

Amurrica had its moments, controlling the first half in my humble and somewhat unnuanced opinion. They had it taken to them after the break but the defense and Timmy Howard held strong through the particularly forceful efforts of the man affectionately referred to as a synonym for the ass-balls connector in the male anatomy. However, while we are a squad more than capable of punching above our weight and capitalizing on counter-attacks against more gifted sides, we are not yet of the ability to really dominate the action and create from our own ingenuity against teams below our level. We negate and are opportunistic. Can we be positive? Thus, we must be very weary of both the Slovenians and Algerians.

All that said, I like our swag right now.

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Definite chill in the air in Cape Town for Italy and Paraguay, the type that gets my nose running and shining in beautiful pinkish-red. Rain soaked the city in the morning and again broke through the heavens during match-time with temperatures somewhere in the 40s.

The Azzuri actually played a bit more aggressively than I anticipated. Nonetheless, their spacing and link-up play in the final third missed the beat all night, with the ultra-quick rain soaked pitch perhaps playing a role. They’re a ‘professional outfit’ in the fullest sense, a squad that always puts themselves in position to catch breaks when it matters. They gave the Cape Town crowd something of a better show than the Vichy did on opening night, but there does seem to be a void in the ‘talismanic’ playmaker role (favored word of British soccer announcers). Chances are they won’t beat themselves, but can they beat their opponents? Paraguay gave it an honest go and certainly had their fair share of chances, the 1-1 draw probably being the deserved result despite holding a lead into the 2nd half. The group is for the taking.

Interestingly, even after his stellar performance in the Confederation’s Cup last summer and his rising profile in La Liga, the American born Giuseppe Rossi was not included in Marcello Lippi’s Italian 25, the unfortunate reality of competing for a spot for one of the world’s elite. Shit, we’d welcome him back warmly if FIFA would allow. Anyway, he has displayed that rare goal-front machismo in the past so necessary for a nation’s hopes, and those finishing instincts may be missed for a team that is the very lifeblood of The Situation, the Jersey Shore, and everywhere hair-gel and graphic t’s reign supreme.

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North Korea located their World Cup base camp in the most impoverished township I have seen to date in all of South Africa: Timbesa, a densely populated spot on the outskirts of Johannesburg. It’s a fairly incredible place, a shanty-town of corrugated tin shacks and port-a-potty bathroom facilities balanced by a network of food stalls, barber shops (by far more barber shops per capita than I’ve seen anywhere in the world, by the way), open-air tent set up banking centers, and cell-phone services (some of which probably of the black market variety). A huge tent on the periphery of town serves as church hall, and the streets teem with life every time I’ve passed through. Perhaps the most striking feature of the neighborhood is the immaculate, uniformed dress of the school children (a universal truth across South Africa), and though it might be an overstatement to identify that propriety with the larger sense of community pride the people feel in their dwellings, that thought recurred to me on a number of my journeys there.

Nevertheless, at its core the place is still devastingly poor. Many of the folks that have accompanied me out treat it somewhat like a zoo, locking the doors the moment the threshold of the hood is crossed and then gaping in patronizing wonderment at this slum-dog society, trying to store as many images as they can to immediately regurgitate it in a somewhat heroic narrative of adventure over a few beers at dinner later that night. A few comments will be passed on the unfortunate sadness of this reality, scape-goats will be discussed, whether the Afrikaaners of the past or the corrupt leadership of the present day, and with these words spoken, hands and consciences are wiped clean to enjoy another evening in the wonderful affluence of Sandton, Joburg’s gem of a suburb. I don’t know that I’m that much different; I just don’t talk as much, and I’m cool with walking around in those kind of neighborhoods…but I digress.

Anyway, it is somewhat funny and fitting that North Korea would select such a place to provide one of the few windows their nationals are afforded to the outside world. ‘Well, this is capitalism, boys. This is what happens without the prudence of the Great Leader. Without him, who has just finishing shooting a score of 25 for a round of 18 in golf, such a fate would befall us all.’ They won’t be television any matches live back in the land above the 38th parallel, only deciding after the fact if the team’s efforts are worthy of broadcast. Who knows, maybe they will just pick fifteen random people out of a crowd, give them yellow t-shirts, and announce the match-up as if it is Brasil v. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

P.S. anytime you need to emphasize the democratic nature of your country in your naming of it, you’re probably compensating for something.

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Twice this past week I have flown from Durban in very early hours of the morning. Twice I have stopped into a convenience store on my way to grab a Vitamin Water (yes, Vitamin Water is now internationally ballin’). Twice I have been greeted by the soothing melody of R. Kelly’s hip-hopera ‘Trapped in the Closet’ on the store’s sound system. I can only hope they are playing the entire breathtaking saga and an interminable loop.

Colin Powers: Our Man in South Africa


It’s humid but pleasantly warm in Durban, the heat a welcome embrace in the wake of Cape Town’s night time chill. The stands of the beautifully designed and architecturally exquisite Moses Mabhida Stadium are empty beyond the eclectic collection prepping for tomorrow’s clash between Germany and Australia. Some volunteers are busy labeling seat numbers, others doing their best to look menacing in security capacities, a task betrayed by their kind smiles and readiness to pound it out when I’ve walked by. Elsewhere, FIFA personnel are swarming about configuring their cameras and all that jazz, while some Australian media are in tow to snap a couple photos and hope for something mildly interesting to transpire and give their match day preview stories something beyond the generic and recycled.

I am here because I stumbled upon what can only be the residue of divine favor. In the early hours of a May, New York morning, I received a phone call from a cousin I hadn’t had much interaction with in recent years. Now, these random confluences of circumstance do pop up from time, inevitable when you have over fifty first cousins. Indeed, my mother’s family, where she is one of eleven children, embodies the stereotypical ethos of an era in Ireland well before the crass modernity and narcissism of the Celtic Tiger, an era when the Catholic Church reigned with ultimate authority, Priests didn’t touch little children (or at least didn’t get caught), and birth control was a heathen’s luxury. Anyway, without drifting too far into historical polemics and the reasons why England could be blamed for all Ireland’s woes up until this recent economic disaster (maybe that too), I have a very big family. Furthermore, this over-achieving family of impoverished, agrarian heritage has begotten a generation of children spread across the economic landscape, one of whom has ascended to become a big man in turf studies and preparation. It was this cousin who phoned me, inquiring if I would like to come out to South Africa on his company’s dime to lend a hand in testing out the pitches, provide fodder for humor because of my Americanness (yes, most Europeans do still seem to think we’re all stupid and Bushian and gun-toting and God fearing and ‘lacking in subtlety’), and help out in an assortment of ways as young people without any established craft or skill-set are known to do. Nepotism is pretty cool when it’s in your favor, I must say.

As is such, this job has provided incredible access to the country of South Africa as well as World Cup operations and politicking from an angle that may or may not be somewhat interesting depending of course on the reader. If the social and racial dynamics of this vibrantly evolving nation is not your bag of tea, well, shit, good thing there are 10,000 media people covering the event who can probably provide something more to your liking. If the size of Thierry Henry’s ass (sorta big, he looked a little out of shape but he’s a big dude in general up close), the inner fat kid that Yohan Gourcuff’s style of running reveals when within shouting distance, or the unanimous distaste of the boisterous Cape Town crowd for French Manager Raymond Domenech also bores, you needn’t waste any more time with me. That being said, because of this j-o-b, I have been afforded a somewhat clandestine vantage point through which to observe the comings and goings and inner-workings of the Cup and all its surroundings (including a standing sideline position at a number of matches). Self-involved and self-important as is the fundamental and underlying nature of my generation, I figure I should write about this and share my perspective, wonderful observations and the other elements of egoism that come along with it. At least I am also self-aware.

With that as my introduction, I’ll jot down a few points purely from the football side of things before later getting on into the remarkable and pulsing energy of Soweto, the destitution/communal pride dichotomy of the Tembisa township, the breathtaking fortress style gentrification of South African society, the fear and fear-mongering of many visitors and the white establishment, respectively, and the different thoughts I have collected from a number of people on where this country is going and where it has been.

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